The main draw of spy thrillers is their unsettling and tense tone. In Channel 4’s Traitors, it is even more prevalent, as main protagonist Feef (Emma Appleton) isn’t as experienced in the art of infiltration as your James Bonds, Jason Bournes, or Kim Possibles. This heightens the suspense as you know she is slightly out of her depth. Although wartime spy thrillers aren’t uncommon in the world of film and television, Traitors is especially interesting as there are a lot of similarities to the political landscape of England today. Hugh Fenton, played by Luke Treadaway, is an ardent Labour supporter and his speech in parliament during the first episode rings eerily true to current topical politics.
Being asked to spy on her own government to uncover a supposed communist infiltrator, Feef is literally thrust into the lion’s den. It makes for a fascinating watch, as part of the fun is trying to figure out who is behind it all. At the same time it is quite uncomfortable viewing, as you are just waiting for something bad to happen and ultimately to the least deserving of characters. It has a very John Le Carre feel to it with its intricate multi layered plot, various different groups spying on one another each with their own agenda and the unlucky few caught in the middle of it all. It has a somewhat complicated plot, but what’s nice about Traitors is that it isn’t as convoluted as the works of John Le Carre. It is one you have to pay attention to, but far easier to follow, which makes for a more enjoyable watch. It has gone for the classic Cold War era setting which is a staple of spy dramas. The Americans are spying on the Russians, the Russians are spying on the English and the English are spying on the Americans. Set shortly after the end of the Second World War, it focuses on the rise of the Soviet bloc, as well as the ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestine.
What really makes Traitors stand out though is the cinematography and lighting work. Most spy thrillers are very slick and smooth with fixed camera angles and wide, long shots. Traitors opts for a more unusual style of camerawork, with a series of odd angles and off-kilter shots. Additionally there are a lot of quite invasive close ups. It adds a level of intensity to the programme, reinforcing that sense of paranoia and unease. There are also some really nice visual touches such as the scene with the shoes beneath the curtains early on in the season. It is a simple but effective way of building tension, by showing the audience something the character on screen can’t see.
The lighting is very interesting as it is quite soft and warm in its style. This is unusual as although many films and TV shows of this era have a big focus on costumes, environments and dialects, the lighting is usually sharp and gritty. This is usually due to the fact that the creative team is trying to bring the time period to life and make it more realistic and relatable to modern audiences. However there is something quite satisfying about the choice of lighting in Traitors. Although it is in colour, there is something almost film noir about the way it is shot.
There are some nice twists and surprises dotted throughout Traitors. One of the best examples is actually used in the trailer – the scene where Feef gets a bucket of water tipped over her head is edited and used in such a way to suggest that she is being interrogated, having been presumably found out as a spy. After a few minutes into the supposed interrogation scene it becomes clear that this is not the case at all. The use of trickery is especially important given the spy theme of the drama and makes you very wary and suspicious of almost all the important characters. This is an effective tool as it keeps you guessing throughout, making for a tense and investing watch. When the infiltrator is finally discovered, the tension doesn’t let up, as Feef has to try and report and track them without being discovered herself. Things become even worse when Feef fears that the infiltrator has guessed that she is a spy. It then develops into the viewer trying to figure out who is going to be the next character to meet an unfortunate end and how that will impact the grander playing field of events.
The acting is sublime, with a very talented cast of actors both from England and America. This not only serves for some engaging and powerful performances but provides a nice variety of acting styles. The strong performances bring the story to life and really get across the intensity of being an operative caught in the middle of a tense and dangerous time in England. Michael Stuhlbarg who plays Rowe continues to amaze every time he is on screen and plays the part of an American intelligence operative extremely well. He is quirky but also very manipulative and as the season develops both his odd behaviour and sly cunning become even more prominent. Keeley Hawes gives one of her best performances to date as Priscilla, Feef’s boss in the cabinet office. She manages to present a character who is in some ways very dislikeable but there is also a more vulnerable and gentle side to her personality. Her and Feef’s relationship is particularly interesting as they share a lot in common but also don’t entirely trust one another, making for a good interplay between the two.
As the intricate and mysterious plot of Traitors unfolds, some of the other surrounding and secondary characters’ stories begin to unfold. Jackson Cole the military driver played by the brilliant Brandon P. Bell, has an air of mysteriousness to his character initially. More and more of his story and character arc come to light as the plot progresses, adding an extra level of intrigue to the show. The same style has been incorporated for Hugh Fenton and although perfectly interesting at the start, his character and narrative becomes even more engaging when a certain revelation is revealed. What is great about this particular twist is that clever editing hints at the twist but doesn’t give it away too obviously, making for a satisfying and explainable reveal. A little more character development on both these characters would have further enhanced Traitors, but the material they did focus on made for some great drama.
There is one main problem with Traitors that only becomes apparent in the last two episodes, which is that pretty much all the characters are intensely dislikeable. For Feef there are two major decisions she makes that dramatically change her as a person. Priscillia is another example of a character who becomes particularly unlikeable in the last two episode. She carries out a questionable action earlier on in the season but her remorse shows her guilt of having committed it. Whereas the decision Priscilla makes in the last episode in particular is far worse and she doesn’t exhibit that same sense of guilt for carrying it out. Some characters such as Rowe are nasty from the beginning but other characters such as Feef and Priscilla started off likeable. This is sort of to be expected with a spy drama as everyone has their own agenda and even those with a good moral compass are forced to do something quite nasty to save themselves from a compromising situation. However, it suffers slightly as you no longer feel that sense of connection or compassion for the previously likable and innocent characters once they show a colder side.
Additionally, the last two episodes are also very violent, uncompromising and bleak. In terms of realism and harsh reality, Traitors does an extremely good job but I felt thoroughly depressed and hollow after the finale. It’s not the most grand of finishes for a show and the downbeat and dreary conclusion means the story line fizzles out as opposed to sparks. It is a shame because the narrative is very engaging, characters investing and the style appealing, it just has a disappointingly lackluster finish to it.
Traitors has an cleverly crafted story and interesting historical setting, with some great acting and character development on offer. Unfortunately the finale is overbearingly bleak and a little lacklustre in its delivery.